There’s something tremendously empowering about spiritual agency. Growing up in a rural, conservative congregation, I was regularly encouraged to make an “impact” because God was living and active in the world, and that God was in my corner. So I spent most of my high school and college years trying to leave a “legacy,” a trail of conversions in my wake, evidence that I had obediently made a the appropriate impact for Christ.
As my journey of faith has taken me to other denominational ecosystems, I’ve noticed that while the language of “impact” has taken on various forms and comes with various expectations, the desire to bring about change is staunchly entrenched in every religious vintage. The shared gospel of American Christianity is that we can make a difference, and we all set out with our committees, resolutions, and covenants to make an impact in the world.
Any high school sophomore can tell you that Christianity has made an impact, but not all our “Footprints in the Sand” have been good ones. Christianity made an impact when Christians baptized indigenous cultures at the point of a sword. Christianity made an impact when Christians developed better, more efficient ways of killing people on the battlefield and on death row. Christianity had an impact as Christians declared manifest destiny over this diverse land, poisoning its water, decapitating its mountains, and clear-cutting its forests in the name of economics and growth. Since the days of Constantine, Christianity has walked with the heavy foot of “impact” and “change,” and we are now its most skilled proponents. Constantine bred missionary Christianity, which bred colonial Christianity, which bred industrial Christianity. Growth-centric Christianity remains essentially unchecked and unquestioned in our culture.
In the 20th century, a series of principles took national park visitors down a different road, called “Leave No Trace.” It is a framework for making ecologically responsible decisions when interacting with the magnificent ecosystems of this country. In short, one is supposed to plan carefully for one’s visit, so that there would be no evidence of human interaction in a particular space. A catchy phrase sums it up well, “Leave nothing but footprints. Take nothing but memories. Kill nothing but time.”
Leave No Trace begins with the conviction that the ecosystem has an integrity all its own. That integrity needs no alteration or improvement; what is present is sufficiently productive and beautiful. Leave No Trace welcomes human interaction with the environment, but as admirers and co-creations, not as overlords or consumers. This disposition of respect demands that we engage with nature thoughtfully, cultivating the spiritual traits of simplicity, humility, and wonder. It teaches us something of our place in the world – that the world is not ours to destroy and remake in any way we choose. In this way, it echoes the thoughts of St. Clare, “But with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward securely, joyfully, and swiftly on the path of prudent happiness.”
At its best, Christianity calls us to Leave No Trace, giving up the heavy boots of progress to walk with the bare feet of joy and wonder. This is the lesson the modern church needs to learn again. The Church does not stand over and above the created order, imposing its apocalyptic agenda upon it. The Church is called to be a redemptive part of every ecosystem, respecting it and caring for it, encouraging its productivity for the well-being of the land, humanity, and all creatures.
At The Keep & Till, we work diligently to implement a “Leave No Trace” ethos. Of course, it manifests itself in simple practices that every church can participate in, such as seeking to reduce our waste and our carbon footprint. We also teach principles of Leave No Trace in our outdoor ministries. But we recognize that we will need to think and plan differently if we are to genuinely Leave No Trace.
For instance, we acknowledge that communities need spaces, but we feel that our community landscape is dotted with the non-biodegradable waste of church edifices. Our church is in the field and on the path. So yes, we plant, and we harvest, we hike, and we paddle. But one day, when we’re all finished being a community, nature will reclaim those places – first with weeds, then with shrubs, then with trees. And a generation or two down the road, no one will ever know we were here. In the same way, what items can we restore and repurpose? Certainly this bears witness to eternal life! It also affects how we handle resources. Is it helpful to have large bank accounts when there’s no church? It seems to us that large bank accounts – evidence of our existence – only exist because we made the repeated choice NOT to serve our community and ecosystem.
With this Leave No Trace mindset, accumulation and growth are no longer factors driving the church; faithfulness and service are.
However, to give up “making an impact” isn’t to suggest that nothing changes. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the important voices in an emerging monastic movement, writes in his book The Wisdom of Stability, “Stay put and pay attention – learn to trust God in the place where you are – and you will have a front seat for the revolution that Christian tradition calls conversion. Stability transforms us along with the place where we live.”
By taking Clare’s advice to walk lightly, we believe that real conversion does happen. Walking lightly and committed to one place, we become a Church in the truest sense: together we follow Jesus, loving each other deeply. We believe that rivers will run clean, trees will grow tall, and food will be abundant and healthy. We expect that when all are fed and cared for, when all have a place in an ecosystem, that social ills will decline, charity will rise, and communities elevated. So we confess the ways that we’ve participated in this industrial ecclesiology, and we seek a new way forward. Our footprints might not be visible, but our witness to Christ will endure.
- Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2010), 134.